If the world ended on a Monday, would anybody notice?

I wish I’d worn a jacket today.

It got cooler unexpectedly — although unexpected only if you discount the fact it probably ought to have been cooler a whole lot sooner, that days with highs of 80 degrees (something like 25 Celsius?) maybe aren’t the norm for late September or early October. But just a week ago, I was wearing short-sleeved shirts to work, and I didn’t think I needed more than the long-sleeved shirt (plus T-shirt beneath) I decided to wear today. It was a little cool, but I figured once the sun came up, I’d be fine.

And I was, but I kind of wish I’d worn a jacket. The sun didn’t come up all that much.

Metaphorically, though, it came up pretty nicely.

Oh, sure, there was that police shooting around the corner from my office. I mean literally around the corner. It happened last night apparently, and today it was just a crime scene investigation that had the block cordoned off and blocked to traffic. But still: yikes.

Otherwise, though, things were good, even for a Monday. I discovered first thing that Kaleidotrope had again been reviewed in Locus. The review, of the past two issues, is kind a mixed bag — Rich Horton singles out a couple of stories for praise, but he’s not uncritical of them — but it was still great to see the zine reviewed in those pages. (Even if the physical pages proved exceptionally difficult to track down. I eventually purchased the PDF direct from Locus, decided to re-up my lapse subscription in the process.)

Then this evening, after work, I attended a short panel discussion ostensibly on Utopia/Dystopia at the Center for Fiction. It was the start of a month-long series on fantasy and science fiction at the Center, most of which I’m actually (right now) planning on attending, and it was interesting, if not exactly what was advertised. Though authors Anna North, Kathleen Ann Goonan, and Charles Yu seemed to be, occasionally, trying to steer the conversation back towards all things utopian and dystopian, I’m not sure moderator DongWon Song was on the same page as everyone else. The discussion, for the most part, was a lot broader, about being a science fiction writer and the differences (real and market-imposed) between it and “mainstream” or “literary” fiction.

As such, it was interesting, but nothing especially new. The debate over where genre begins and ends, the benefits and drawbacks to writing within it, has been raging for years.

Still, it was interesting. Charles Yu’s How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe was one of the best books I read last year, and I enjoyed Goonan’s Queen City Jazz well enough years ago. (I thoroughly gave up on the first of the sequels just this year, however, and I felt a little guilty about that sitting there. I may feel guiltier on Wednesday, when the panel on fantasy includes Lev Grossman.) I’d never heard of North before, though I thought she spoke quite knowledgeably about science fiction, and she seemed the most determined to (subtly but repeatedly) steer the conversation back towards the end of the world.

No small surprise since that’s kind of what her book is about.

Still, these seemed like good people to be talking about utopia and dystopia and the contrast between the two. That what they mostly discussed seemed closer in spirit to the topic of Margaret Atwood’s upcoming talk — one of the few Center events this month I think I won’t be attending — was amusing, especially since it was only back in March that I went to hear Atwood herself speak about utopias and dystopias. (She favors the term of her own coinage, ustopias.)

Noonan defended her most recent novel, which apparently posits an alternate history, as not a utopia, as if that in and of itself was a dirty word. Changing some things just creates new problems, she said — I think rightly — which led later into a discussion of whether utopias are even possible. The odds of something terrible happening, even if it’s not specifically another ice age (North) or nanotech gone wild (Goonan) or “time travel as a means of regret” (Yu), are a lot better than a perfect world. The real world, after all, isn’t perfect, and it’s full of fallible people.

In many stories, in fact, dystopias are the price the characters (and/or world) pay for the creation (or failed creation) of someone else’s utopia. Perhaps every dystopia is simply a failed utopia, or the nostalgia for a lost one. Specific examples cited by the authors (and by the one audience member who really asked a question about the topic) included Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” Sheri S. Tepper’s The Gate to Women’s Country, H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, Atwood’s own The Handmaid’s Tale. These are often utopias at first glance — Wells’ Eloi, for instance, who live a life of comfort and ease — with a dystopia lurking beneath — the Morlocks, literally beneath, toiling in slavery underground. Or they are stark dystopias — Atwood’s repressive Republic of Gilead — brought about when someone — in this case the leaders of Gilead — attempt to impose their brand of utopia on the world. As North pointed out, the villains in dystopias tend to think they’re creating utopias, much like supervillains in comics.

“There’s always a mad scientist,” added Goonan.

Yu’s book, by contrast, is more a “personal dystopia,” or rather “not a dystopia, but just a super-sad universe.” Still, he talked about being liberated in his writing when he actually created that universe, gave it structure, form, and rules. “I was bound by my own constraints,” he said, and that’s what was so freeing as a writer.

So, in all, it was an interesting evening, if not exactly what I’d been led to expect. I didn’t stay for the book signing or wine reception afterward, but I’m glad I went all the same.

Even if, on the walk back to my subway, I kind of wish I’d worn a jacket.

2 thoughts on “If the world ended on a Monday, would anybody notice?

  1. “Perhaps every dystopia is simply a failed utopia, or the nostalgia for a lost one.”

    I’m finding that there is a hyper-intense nostalgia that runs through dystopia. Not so much mourning for a failed utopia, but a nostalgia for a displaced temporality. It’s oddly apparent in the YA dystopia I’ve been reading, too.

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